The five Richard Dehmal poems of Zemlinsky's Fünf Lieder,
which you can hear on Renée Fleming's January
11 recital, vividly depict an affair between a married woman and
man—a scenario the composer was watching unfold within his own family as
he was composing the cycle.
Zemlinsky must have been overjoyed when his sister, Mathilde, married
Arnold Schoenberg. He must have been less thrilled when she started her
relationship with the painter Richard Gerstl (also a friend of
Schoenberg). By the time Zemlinsky had completed his five songs,
Mathilde had left Schoenberg and moved in with her lover. Shortly
thereafter, she went back to Schoenberg, and the painter killed himself.